Black Presbyterian Excellence

by | Feb 12, 2024

Lift up your eyes and look around;
  they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
  and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Isaiah 60:4

February is Black History Month, and on January 30th we had an opportunity to begin the month with gratitude for, and inspiration from, the life of Mrs. Erma Walks. Her memorial service was held at Claremont Presbyterian Church, and it was a celebration of her life and impact, of her accomplished and faithful family, and of their ministry with South Hills Presbyterian Church. You can see the full memorial service by clicking HERE—you might want to fast forward about 26.5 minutes in, when the service actually starts.

Erma Walks and her husband, Rev. Ivan Walks, have something in common with many of our San Gabriel Presbytery members in that they were immigrants to the United States, having come to Southern California from Guyana in 1959. She carried on her family’s tradition in education; her mother was a deputy headteacher and Erma taught in Guyana, and then gained additional training at USC and Claremont Graduate School. For 23 years, she worked in the Pomona Unified School

District as an innovative teacher and administrator. As a school principal, one of her students was Tim Sandoval, the current mayor of the city of Pomona. Mayor Sandoval spoke at her memorial about her impeccable style and professionalism, but more importantly, the caring encouragement she gave to him that enabled him to seek elected leadership at a young age. As it turns out, she had that impact on many young people, at her schools and at South Hills church, telling young people, “You can do it!” even before it was clear what the “it” was.

Her focus on education, the confidence she had in the potential of all children, and her partnership in life and ministry with Rev. Walks propelled her own children and grandchildren to colleges like Harvard, Morehouse, Spelman, Duke, and Boston University, from where they entered the professions of medicine, law, and of course education. Her daughter Cecille married Rev. Dwight Peace, another PC(USA) pastor, who was once a member of San Gabriel Presbytery and now serves in Maryland.

Erma was vice moderator of San Gabriel Presbytery, and the leadership of Erma and Ivan and their significant work partnering with community leaders—and raising up community leaders in school and at South Hills—is one of the pillars on which our presbytery stands. The legacy of South Hills lives in the people of the church and their children, and also in the ministry of Interwoven New Worshiping Community, whose vision also includes seeing and nurturing the potential in young people. Erma and Ivan’s son, Dr. Ivan C. A. Walks (aka Claremont), has stored the considerable wisdom with which he was raised, and I remember that when South Hills closed, he shared how he saw his children acting with compassion to others, and he realized that the lessons he learned at South Hills had been passed on to his children, and so South Hills was not contained in a building, but lives through the people of South Hills. The people of South Hills include not only the Walks family, but leaders such as Rev. Dr. N’Yisrela Watts-Afriyie, Rev. Dwight Peace, Elder Yvonne Harmon (now with Northminster, and currently the Moderator of the Synod of Southern California and Hawai‘i), the extraordinary international opera singer Nmon Ford, and so many others.

I only got to meet Erma Walks once, but I give thanks for her faithful wisdom and leadership in our presbytery. And I give thanks for the next generation of leaders in our presbytery family such as Rev. Harlan Redmond and Dr. Tracey Shenell, who are bringing us into the future with their own wisdom and compassion. This last Saturday, Tracey began the Lenten series “Becoming the Beloved Community,” and participants were enthusiastic as they learned some important concepts in social justice but also shared with each other with laughter and depth. Tracey’s leadership has beautiful facets of insight, intelligence, humor, humility, and organization that create an environment where we all are learning. Tomorrow we begin the Zoom-based meetings; if you want to join you might email her at and see if she can put you in a group.

There are many other people who personify Black excellence, in our world and in the Presbyterian Church (USA), but as we seek to know ourselves better as San Gabriel Presbytery, I want us to remember those whose faithfulness, strength, love, and leadership contributed to the kind of faith community we are today. I pray that we take the time to give thanks for past, current, and future leaders of all cultural backgrounds who have helped and who now form San Gabriel Presbytery’s ministry, for today and tomorrow. As we enter Lent this Wednesday, may we reflect on who we are, and who God is, and how much God loves us. And as we cannot help but feel grateful—for the saints who go before us and most of all for Jesus Christ who gave his human life for our sake—may we commit again our lives to serve our God, who raises us up and fills us with the Holy Spirit, in whose power we are free to serve and love.


Giving thanks,